Six Tips to Make Play Time Enjoyable

If you are like many parents, you dread play time. You have had a long day, you’re tired, you don’t like barbies or puppets or superheros, and you just don’t really know how to play with your little one in a way that they (and you, for that matter!) find enjoyable.

If you are one of the few who love to get down on your hands and knees and make believe with your little one, then awesome! You may not need to read on, although there could be a few things in here to help enhance your play time skills to make it even more enjoyable for the both of you.

If you are one who just doesn’t really get what to do, or goes through the motions, it’s important to remember that your toddler or preschooler’s work and language revolves around play. Play is the way your child explores and begins to understand the world, and the time you spend playing with your child can either enhance or hinder your relationship.

The better your relationship is with your toddler or preschooler, the more they will be willing to listen and learn from you as well. There are five things that you can start doing today to make play time more enjoyable for you and for your child.

Play Tip #1: Make it Part of Your Regular Routine

When you make play time with your toddler or preschool a part of your regular routine, it shows them that you are taking the time out of your busy schedule to just be with them. Regular, one-on-one play time with your child can become an important foundation in building your relationship with your child, so that if and when the tough stuff comes up in an hour, or a day, or a week, or a year, or five, your little one will already have a strong relationship with you, and will be a lot more open to your feedback or direction.

Regular, undivided attention to your child every day can also help him or her to feel loved, valued, and important. When children receive positive attention for their play and behaviour, they are much less likely to seek out negative attention through behaviours such as whining, tantrums, or aggressive or destructive behaviours.

As little as five to ten minutes of special play time with your toddler or preschooler can have huge pay outs in terms of preventing negative behaviours from becoming a problem in the first place, so you won’t have to go through the time (not to mention added stress and other difficulties) of dealing with it later on. Plus, it’s a lot harder to undo challenging behaviours later on, than it is to teach positive ones right now.

Play Tip #2: Follow Your Child’s Lead

After all, your toddler or preschooler is the expert when it comes to playland! Don’t be afraid to let your child take the lead. Special play time with your child is not about teaching them life lessons or how to listen or be practical and realistic and logical – they will have plenty of time for that outside of your 5-10 minutes of one-on-one play time throughout the day and over the years! Play time with your child should be about fun and enjoyment within your relationship.

Imitate your toddler or preschooler’s activities, which shows approval of their imagination and creativity, and makes them feel valued as an individual. Taking your child’s lead, and imitating their actions also models how to play with others, teaches turn-taking, and makes the play more fun and enjoyable for your toddler or preschooler. Just think – how many times throughout the day do they get to call the shots? This is a healthy outlet for your toddler or preschooler to exert their increasing independence.

If your child walks his zoo animals across the floor, walk your zoo animals across the floor too, following his lead. Or, if your child decides to colour her trees purple, colour your trees purple too! You will both be able to enjoy each other’s play a lot more if you’re playing together, as opposed to each playing alongside each other, but doing your own thing.

Play Tip #3: Describe what Your Child is Doing

Children absolutely love when you talk about what they are doing in play. It shows your child you are watching, listening, and paying full attention to their every move! After all, who doesn’t like a little attention from the people they look up to the most! Describing your child’s behaviour shows that you have put everything else aside for the moment, and are purely interested in them and in your relationship and your play with them.

Labeling what your toddler or preschooler is doing during play can help teach them important language skills and other concepts such as shapes, colours, and sizes to name just a few. Describing what your child is doing is also great for developing essential executive function skills, such as organizing thoughts and focusing attention. As behaviour descriptions become a frequent part of your play, you will likely notice your child’s ability to focus on the task at hand increase over time.

If your child walks his zoo animals across the floor, you can simply say “You’re walking the lion across the floor” or “you are making the zebra follow the lion”. If your child colours her trees purple, you can say “You’re picking up the purple crayon. You’re colouring the trees purple”. This is not a time for education or judgment related to zebras chasing lions, or trees being purple, but rather, it’s simply a time to allow your toddler’s or preschooler’s play to flow, and to take note verbally of what he or she is doing during play.

Play Tip #4: Reflect what Your Child Says

Language is an important developmental milestone throughout the early years, and repeating or paraphrasing your child’s verbalizations not only enhances your relationship, but also teaches your child to use verbal communication more frequently. Try to stay away from turning a statement or reflection into a question, and just focus on repeating back to your child word-for-word or summarizing what they say. Using reflection in play with your toddler or preschooler solidifies their lead throughout the play whereas asking questions puts you back in control of the play situation.

Repeating or paraphrasing your child’s verbalizations is also another way to demonstrate that they have your full, undivided attention during that time with them. With the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it’s important for your child to get the message that you are interested in what it is not only that they are doing, but also what they are saying. Reflections show your acceptance of your toddler or preschooler’s bid for communication, and have the added bonus of showing them that you hear and understand what it is they are saying.

If your child makes his lion roar, repeat the sound back. If he says “The zebra’s chasing the lion”, simply state it back (be careful not to turn it into a question. Place extra emphasis on wording like this if you need to – “The zebra is chasing the lion!” If your child states that “The trees are turning purple in the fall”, simply restate “The trees are turning purple!” Again – try to hold back on the questions or judgments by remembering where to place emphasis – “The zebra’s chasing the lion, is he?” and “The trees are turning purple” are questions and criticisms – not reflections. Note the subtle differences, as these will have a very different outcome and impact on the relationship.

Play Tip #5: Praise Your Child’s Efforts and Positive Behaviour

I can not stress enough – attention increases the likelihood that a behaviour will be repeated in the future. That is, the more attention you give to any particular behaviour, the more it will likely continue to occur. When you praise your child for their efforts and their positive behaviour, they will enhance their efforts and positive behaviour in the future.

To be effective, however, praise must be specific. Tell your child exactly what it is that you are pleased about or that you like. If you use generic praise, such as “good job” or “way to go”, you are not telling your child what it is that you liked about their behaviour, so they are free to make their own interpretation. And let me tell you, what seems obvious to you and the other adults in the room can oftentimes take on a very different meaning for your toddler or preschooler.

Remember – kids are kids, and they think like kids. They have zebras chasing lions, and their trees turn purple in the fall. And when you say good job after watching your child put her shoes on all by her big girl self, she thinks means good job for the finger she’s got up her nose… Be very careful with this kind of generic praise! Tell her exactly what you are praising her for by saying something like “Good job putting your shoes on all by yourself” or “Thank you for listening when I asked you to put your shoes on!”

Play Tip #6: For Goodness Sake, Show some Enthusiasm!

I get it – toddler and preschooler play can be less than amusing for adults. But I promise you, for 5-10 minutes a day, you can fake a little enthusiasm. And who knows, you may even find yourself getting right into it! Showing focus, enthusiasm, and enjoyment in your play with your child makes them feel great about you, about themselves, and about the fact that their mom absolutely loves spending time with them!

If you sit there, staring off into space, with a flat tone of voice, or are getting anxious thinking about all the other things you could be doing with your 5-10 minutes of time, your toddler or preschooler will pick up on it. Your child will notice the fact that you aren’t enjoying your play time together, and he or she can quickly begin to feel like they are a bother, a chore, or a distraction from more important things in your life. I know that’s not the case, and you know that’s not the case, but, again, toddlers and preschoolers think zebras chasing lions, and purple trees.

Set aside your distractions – phones, email, your own anxious adult thoughts – and just be in the moment with your child. Use a positive and cheerful tone of voice, smile, laugh, and just try to have fun! If you are one of many parents who absolutely hates child play, just remember that you absolutely love your child, and your child absolutely loves play! A short 5-10 minutes a day doing what your child loves and seeing the enjoyment and enthusiasm on their faces, while enhancing your relationship with your child, really can’t be all that bad. Kinda sounds better when you think about it in perspective, doesn’t it?

And Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice each of the skills above in your play with your child. If you haven’t really played much with your toddler or preschooler before, or if you just despise playing, try to pick just one or two of these tips to try at first, work on them until you become comfortable with them, and then add another one or two, and so on, until you are consistently using each. Or, if on the other hand, you are already a play enthusiast, review some of the tips above to remind you to practice all of them at playtime, and to refine your skills.

Review this post (or your own notes about it) every once in a while to refresh your memory and keep you on track. And if either you or your child or both of you start to feel like this 5-10 minute play time a day is becoming a chore rather than an enjoyable activity, review the tips and be honest with yourself about which skills you maybe aren’t implementing or could improve on.

I’d love to hear your feedback on the tips you find to be the most successful in making play more enjoyable for you or your child, and which ones are the easiest or the most difficult to use.

If play time seems to always be a struggle, if your child becomes aggressive during play with you or with siblings, or if you simply want to improve your relationship with your child and learn how to manage their challenging behaviours, call now for your free 15-minute consultation to see if Parent-Child Interaction Therapy can help.

Happy Play Time!

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